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A meditation on death and the claims of writing,
This review is from: Elizabeth Costello (Paperback)
Elizabeth Costello is an aging novelist, resident (like Coetzee) in Australia, celebrated primarily for work now long in the past, and tied hand and foot to the celebrity circuit of lectures and honorary awards. The chapters of the books are episodes from her life as she moves towards death, shedding certain abiding concerns and finding that others emerge with disconcerting insistence to take centre stage against her will. It is this preoccupation with death, and the meaning that it gives to life, that is one strand that ties the book together. The other, which emerges more slowly, is Costello's crisis of confidence in the powers of reason and finally even in the powers of the creative writer that have been her principal source of self-justification.
'Elizabeth Costello' is a paradoxical book. It presents itself as a novel, but is based around previously published material that appeared at different times in different places and in forms that are not clearly novelistic or even fictional. We are told that it is fiction; but much of the material is clearly autobiographical in origin, and the central character, whose personality and concerns hold the disparate sections together, might be caricatured as Coetzee in a dress.
In spite of this variousness, and what one might call its centrifugal tendencies - the book threatening to fly apart - I found that 'Elizabeth Costello' works as a novel. It was published in the year in which Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the intelligence and seriousness that mark the author's earlier work are everywhere apparent. The book addresses ideas with remarkable directness, as though like Tolstoy Coetzee were striving away from fiction and towards the realms of philosophy; two sections dealing with vegetarianism were delivered as lectures and published separately in an earlier version as 'The Lives of Animals'. Even the chapters of the book are called 'Lessons', as though taken from a book of devotions or spiritual instruction.
Coetzee is not a loveable author: he makes the reader work to understand him, he does not condescend, his style is spare and comedy is not his forte (though there is dry humour here, an irony that some readers will like better). But he rewards careful reading in a way that makes many of his contemporaries look trivial. He is not afraid of looking pretentious, or earnest. His skill in making this book of parts work as a unity is impressive, and he hold some surprises to the very last. It may not be his best book, or the place to start; but if this is second-rank Coetzee, it is better than most contemporary writers' best.